I first fell in love with squid ink several moons ago over a plate of homemade pasta in a thick, inky-black sauce in Marzamemi, a picturesque fishing village on the southeast tip of Sicily. Its silky, salty flavor made an indelible impression; it’s one of those food memories that will forever be ingrained in my mind.
Just the thought of where squid ink comes from may seem a bit bizarre to the uninitiated. As its name implies, squid ink comes from the ink-filled sac that squid use as a protective mechanism to defend against enemies. How anyone ever figured out that squid ink is edible is a mystery to me, but I’m glad to be the beneficiary of that culinary discovery. The smooth liquid adds a distinct brininess to a dish—similar to the salinity of oysters and sea urchin, but with a flavor that is completely its own. It makes a dish taste like the ocean in a pleasant way—not like you accidentally swallowed a mouthful of sea water.
Where does one find squid ink? If you have access to extremely fresh whole squid, you can harvest the ink yourself from the tiny ink-filled sac between its gills. If you’re thinking, “Nope, not going to happen,” I have good news. You can often find jars of squid ink (or, more commonly, cuttlefish ink, which makes a fine substitution) or individual packets at your local fish market and at some specialty food stores.
Squid ink is versatile and can be used to color and flavor sauces, fresh pasta, and, interestingly enough, breads and crackers. In the Spanish dish chipirones en su tinta (squid in its ink), baby squid are fried and served in an inky broth. One of my favorite preparations is a Spanish rice dish of Catalan and Valencian origin known as arroz negro (squid with rice cooked in squid ink).
Arroz negro is prepared similarly to paella—cooked in a large shallow pan over an open flame until the rice absorbs all of the inky-colored liquid. Add a few lightly grilled whole shrimp, and serve with a swirl of bright yellow, garlicky saffron aioli for a dramatic presentation.
While I consider arroz negro to be a special-occasion dish (perhaps because it evokes fond memories of backpacking through Spain), it is easy to prepare for everyday cooking. Fair warning: Squid ink is messy and will stain anything and everything it comes in contact with (including your teeth)—but don’t worry, it’s only temporary.